Gnostic Tarot

Gnostic Tarot

by Lee Irwin

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Red Wheel Weiser & Conari Press
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Mandals for Spiritual Transformation

By Lee Irwin

Samuel Weiser, Inc.

Copyright © 1998 Lee Irwin
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-57863-030-1



This book is based on a Gnostic interpretation of the tarot cards with a special emphasis on spiritual transformation and illumined states of awareness. Such an approach is part of a long history of development in tarot interpretation and esoteric theories of symbolic correspondences. The "traditional" tarot, by which I mean the inherited, classical Mediterranean Tarocci deck popularized in Europe since the Italian Renaissance, has long been associated with various strands of Western esoteric thought through both its imagery and its use in occult systems. Since the late 16th century, it has been allied with many different initiatic schools and societies that emphasized the "illuminist" aspect of the tarot imagery as a means to awaken the human capacity for true spiritual awareness and gnosis. Assimilated into magical practices and allied with other occult traditions such as Kabbalah, astrology, and Hermeticism, the tarot represents one of the richest sources of mythic imagery in the history of the Western psyche.

As a repository of arcane and evocative imagery, the tarot has been frequently interpreted as a symbolic resource for personal transformation and spiritual awakening. Unfortunately, the techniques involving a path-work approach to the tarot as a set of psychic symbols resonant with Western esoteric spiritual meanings have long been associated with initiatic groups whose teachings have been generally unavailable for study by nonmembers of those societies. Subsequently, in the contemporary climate of interest in tarot and its various branches, the Gnostic approach has not been well developed or accessible to tarot practitioners. Further, as there is no such thing as a "definitive" interpretation of tarot, but only a wide variety of interpretive approaches whose emphasis varies according to the intentions and skills of the interpreters, we should not expect, given its rich and complex history, that any claim to recover the "real" or "true" teaching of tarot will actually be supported by other interpreters as final or complete. The essence of the tarot, from an esoteric perspective, lies in its rich evocative potential to call forth new variations on ancient themes, rather than in the creation of some artificial and definitive system whose components are inevitably subject to the critique of changing fashions in all things occult and obscure.

The Gnostic Tarot is presented as a contribution to the rich heritage of spiritual transmutation made possible by reflection and meditation on the ways in which symbolic systems are used to evoke new insights and understanding. But an understanding of what? In this case, of the Mystery which surrounds us as a potential source of awakening to higher and more illumined states of heart and mind. To attain that goal requires a new organization and clarification of the tarot imagery and a reshaping of that imagery so as to evoke a deeper and more penetrating light in the depths of normally unseen human possibilities. The Gnostic Tarot creates a set of meaningful relationships which correspond with both the natural outer world (the macrocosm) and the inner developmental processes of spiritual awakening (the microcosm) and sees those processes as reflected in the use and imagery of the cards. It emphasizes the Hermetic aspects of psychic and symbolic transformation that lead to a more aware sensitivity in the interpretation of tarot imagery.

To understand these relationships, you must avoid using the tarot in a simple diagnostic or oracular fashion. What is required in this Gnostic-Hermetic approach is a deep reflection on the tarot imagery as it relates to subjective experience and the correspondent structures of a personally expanded awareness congruent with objective, historical existence. This interplay between the impact of the image, the interiorization and externalization of the individual in daily life, and the larger context of social existence has its center in a desire for personal transformation that is more than merely a psychological search for attunement with the "unconscious." Such psychological theories are only secondary to the Gnostic Tarot. What is called for here is a form of Hermetic or Gnostic philosophy revised and adapted to current spiritual needs and situations. It is not easy to grasp this philosophy in the context of meditation on tarot imagery and card-handling. It takes serious thought and effort, and a willingness not to simply use the interpretations in a conventional manner but rather to cultivate an attitude of meditative respect toward those images and an appreciation of the underlying metaphysical principles on which this interpretation is based. A brief history of the tarot will help to ground us in some sense of relationship to historical experience and past valuations.

The Early Roots of Tarot

The word tarot is French, a term derived from the Italian tarocco (pronounced "ta-ro-cho"), and refers to a deck of 78 cards. The term tarocco, also found articulated as taro, taroc, or tarok, and other variants, may come from an earlier term which referred to the "triumph cards" (Italian, cartes da trionfi) or "trumps" in use in late 16th-century Renaissance Italy. The origins of these trump cards is unclear, but they seem to have been in use in northern Italy after 1500 by both the general populace and the aristocracy. In 1480, the Italian writer Covelluzo wrote that "in the year 1379 the game of cards was brought into Viterbo from the country of the Saracens where it is called Naib" (in Spanish, naipes means "cards," a usage most likely derived from the Islamic Moors). This occurred during the Great Schism or feud between the Italian pope, Urban VI, and the French pope, Clement VII. The Italian merchants hired Saracen (Muslim) mercenaries who may have brought cards with them into Italy.

The Mamluks of Egypt were known to have had cards in the 13th century and may have introduced card playing to European knights, possibly during various periods of the middle Crusades. Another source of inspiration for these early cards may have been the game of chess, transmitted by the Saracens from the peoples of India (the original home of chess) to European knights like Godfrey of Bouillon, who brought the game back from the First Crusade (c. 1095-99). However much influence chess may have had on the Minor Arcana or the four suits, it seems to have had little or no influence on the Major Arcana. Cards in the Istanbul Museum show Mamluk suits of Scimitars, Cups, Coins, and Wands (or polo sticks) similar to early Italian suits with curved swords and flared wands. In 1816, Samuel Weller Singer claimed an Arabic origin for cards, but pointed to the Saracen invasion of Sicily in 652 C.E. during the early spread of Islam as a possible origin. Even though this theory, one of the earliest on origins for the tarot, has been largely discredited, particularly with regard to the trump cards or Major Arcana, Arab cards may have had some significant influence on the development of the four suits. This theory, however, concerns only the physical appearance of cards in Europe and not the possibility of the Arab linguistic origins of the term "tarot."

Some authors have claimed that "tarot" derives from the Egyptian TaRosh, meaning "the royal way," and others have suggested it is a Latin anagram for rota, referring to the "wheel," an analogy for the Karmic rounds of birth, death, and rebirth as symbolized in the Major Arcana card, the Wheel of Fortune. If, however, you look into the standard Egyptian dictionaries (Budge, Gardiner, etc.), you quickly discover that there is no linguistic entry for ta rosh, except for a very late cartouch of the Persian King, Darius, which reads in Egyptian Ta Roosh, but which is an obvious transliteration of Darius from the Greek. The theory of the Egyptian origins of the term "tarot" appears to lead to a dead end. However, a quick check of the possible Arabic etymology (via Lane) reveals darsun (sg.) or darus (pl.), meaning "hidden, or sought after." The Hebrew etymology for a Semitic equivalent yields the Hebrew darash (sg.) and darush (pl.) meaning, "to ask or inquire," or "an oracle." If taroc is thought of as a transliteration of the Semitic darus or darush, it yields a number of interesting linguistic possibilities.

Following this line of inquiry, a tentative hypothesis may be put forward for the Semitic linguistic origins of the term "tarot." If there are both Arabic and Hebrew equivalents for the term, it is likely an old Semitic root-word (as found in Phoenician or Ugaritic). We know that the contemporary term "tarot" is French and was acquired from the Italian Tarocco or Taroc, which is very close to the Semitic root-word for oracle. The transposition of the "da" to "ta" is quite common in languages crossing cultural boundaries, as is the transposition of "sh" to "ch." Thus we can postulate that the Italian taroc may be a word derived from the Semitic-Arabic root-word darush, meaning "to inquire," "to seek after the hidden," "to be oracular." The word may have been brought to Italy through contact with Arabic (or Iberian-Jewish) traditions whose roots may extend back into the Arab presence in Spain after the eighth century. This hypothesis, which may articulate nothing more than a fortuitous association, is set forth simply as a suggestive guideline for future inquiry into the linguistic origins of "tarot." However, it does add some weight to the theory that the tarot is of Arab origin and carries some inherent oracular meaning.

Regardless of its name or its origins, the tarot first appeared in Europe in hand-painted decks made by Italian artisans, beginning as early as 1299. These decks flourished among the great families of northern Italy, such as the Este, Visconti, and Sforza. As recorded in the Chambre des Comptes of 1392, Charles VI of France is said to have had cards painted, sixteen of which are presently on display in the Bibiothéque Nationale de Paris. There are scholars, however, who dispute whether these are really a source for the spread and development of the tarot trump or Major Arcana. Were the makers and painters of these cards possibly inspired by other (Arabic?) cards or perhaps by paper money brought back from China by the famous merchants of Venice? The northern Italian cards are called "Venetian" to distinguish them from the 97-card pack of the Florentines and the 62-card deck of the thrifty Bolognese.

The theory of the Chinese origins for cards is interesting, but not a likely source of the tarot Major Arcana. According to the Ching-tze-tung dictionary (1678), playing cards were invented by the Chinese as entertainment for the Emperor's concubines. As noted by Douglas, paper money of the T'ang Dynasty (618-908) was printed using woodblocks in suits of "strings of cash," or increasing units of a single suit of coins (much like our contemporary paper money). Gambling with this money may have led, by the 11th century, to games in which the printed paper money itself was treated as a type of card to be played. Traditionally, Chinese "paper cards" (chih p'ai) consisted of a 160-card deck, each card measuring roughly 2.5 by .75 inches and having black lacquer backs. Another influence may be found in the Chinese paper money with the image of the deity or spirit printed on it which was burned at the altars of various deities and spirits. This is vaguely reminiscent of Major Arcana imagery. Such woodblock-printed paper may have been brought back along with the idea of paper money by various Italian-Venetian merchants. There is no direct connection however, between either the images or the format of Chinese playing cards and the tarot deck. Chinese and Japanese images, however, are presently used on some tarot decks and these may harken back to this older theory of the Far Eastern origin of cards. The Chinese Tarot designed by Jui Guoliang consists of many images and correspondences from classical China, such as the Major Arcana card five, The Heavenly Master, or card twenty, Confucius. The beautiful Japanese Ukiyoe cards of Koji Furuta give an excellent impression of the 17th-and 18th-century Japanese "floating world."

If we briefly review the history of card playing, we find the following important dates in a general pattern of increasing dissemination and interest in tarot and the game of tarocci.

1377: A monk in Brefeld, Switzerland collects information showing the pagan origins of cards and card games and, fascinated with "games" of all sorts, writes a description of card games. However, there is no mention of the "trump" cards of the Major Arcana.

1378: The southern Germans, never slow to ban "wasteful pleasures" of any sort, ban card games in Regensburg, Germany. However, this ban suggests strongly that card playing was widespread and that stenciled decks may have been popular and accessible to the ordinary folk from an early date.

1379: A Belgian aristocrat acquires an interest in the game and, ignoring the spread of the inexpensive, stenciled decks, orders a high-fashion deck that is all the rage in Italy, as recorded in the account books of the Dukedom of Brabant (Belgium).

1380: The Nuremberg Germans, in a contrast to their Regensburg neighbors, realize that all their fellow nationals are using tarocco cards and the Code of Nuremberg, influenced no doubt by the local aristocracy who wish to be au courant, permits the making of such cards.

1381: Meanwhile, an enraged notary in the town of Marseilles, France, who probably lost far too much money (and time!) playing a game as frivolous as Tarocco, makes an entry in his records condemning the game.

1392: Charles VI of France finally gets his three decks of hand-painted cards after waiting almost two years, as recorded in his treasurer's account books. This deck, painted by Jacquemin Gringonneur, may mark the earliest historical record for an actual tarot deck, though many scholars dispute the theory. The deck is presently on display in the Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris.

1397: On the streets of Paris, popular hand-stenciled decks become all the rage, particularly during long and leisurely French lunches, and frustrated employers petition the City Council to pass a law forbidding the playing of cards during work days.

1415: The young Duke de Milan, Filippo Maria Visconti, indulges in a display of ill-temper and his mother, to save him from being exiled to Spain by his father, acquires a shiny, hand-painted deck of 78 cards for his amusement. This is the famous Visconti deck, which shows the trump cards as part of the Cary-Yale Visconti Tarocci (presently in the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University). Symbols on these cards reflect Visconti heraldic devices, as well as life in Renaissance Milan. Doublets or hose are worn by men, the third crown is added to the papal tiara, as on the Heirophant card, the breastplate of the Charioteer is a 15th-century device, et. A unique feature of this deck is that it contains both male and female Pages and Knights, as well as the more traditional king and Queen (each suit has 16 rather than 14 cards).

1423: By now, the Catholic clerics are aroused and perhaps playing cards themselves. Speeches are heard condemning the cards in Siena. The renowned ascetic, St. Bernard rails against the "wicked and pagan practices" of card playing and fortune-telling, reminding his listeners of the fate of the Witch of Endor. The reference here to the "pagan practice" of card playing is interesting and may represent an intriguing connection to the non-Christian use of the cards (among the Muslims? the Celts?). Or it may simply reflect a rhetorical position that identifies card playing as a "non-Christian" practice.

1423-77: Townbooks of Nuremberg, Germany name several women as card-painters. It is one of the little-known secrets of the arcane history of tarot that many decks may have been the meticulous work of skilled women painters. This also suggests that some of the imagery found on tarot decks may have been inspired by women artisans.

1427: Two master card makers are registered in the Guild registers of Brabant, proving that the original French-Belgian decks were highly popular and created skilled employment within the craft guilds.

1440: The first surviving deck printed from woodblock is made, a deck of French aristocratic court cards. Earlier examples of these printed decks were probably abundant, but, unlike the hand-painted decks of the aristocracy, they were not carefully preserved. Among the artisans, an anonymous engraver known as the "Master of Playing Cards" produces some remarkable examples of soft-ground engraving, 60 cards of which still remain.

Excerpted from GNOSTIC TAROT by Lee Irwin. Copyright © 1998 Lee Irwin. Excerpted by permission of Samuel Weiser, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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